Sunday, February 22, 2009

Don't hate me because I am brilliant....

One of the great curiosities of working in a career center at a research university is the number of PhD students who slink to our offices under the cover of night. I once wondered why they were so often three or four minutes late, but it has occurred to me that if they arrive early, then they are forced to sit in the waiting area for ten or fifteen minutes. On display. Where everybody can see them. Their students are there. Their advisor could walk by at any moment!

After being transferred to the security of my private office, complete with a cone of silence and anti-intrusion technology, they feel comfortable enough to raise one of two issues... sometimes both. The first issue is usually that they wish to pursue a non-academic career and they don't want their advisor or colleagues to know. The second is that they are concerned that their PhD will make them over-qualified and they want to know if they should hide their degree, that is, leave it off of their resume and job applications. Because this is MY blog and it is one of the few places in my life where I am moderately in charge, I am going to choose to talk about the second issue and will leave the first issue for sometime next week.

Let me put it simply. No, you should not hide your advanced degree. There. Done. So we can move on, right?

Whaddya mean you want to know why?

Here's the deal, there is only one reason that I can possibly think of to hide your degree, but several reasons not to hide it, however, if you are going to be a complete wienie about this and demand to know why, I'll list them below.

Reasons to hide your advanced degree.

I will be as candid as possible. It is true that sometimes without even seeing your other qualifications, a prospective employer will toss your application or resume... assuming that you are far too smart to be chillin’ wit da homies.

“Not fair!” you say? Think about this way, sometimes bosses don't hire folks because they went to the same school as the last bonehead they had to fire. Sometimes bosses don't hire a candidate because they hate liberals and an applicant listed Sierra Club volunteering on his/her resume. (We all know that those Sierra Club types are liberal whackos!) Sometimes they don't hire a job aspirant because they hate conservatives and they listed church activities on their resume. (Only crazy conservatives are involved in organized religion.) I hope you get my point.

Please ask yourself, would you want to work for anybody who would have excluded you from consideration on the basis of a single piece of information about you? (The correct answer is, "No. I certainly would not wish to work for such a bad, mean, stupid stupid person." Remember this. There will be a test later.)

So, there it is. The only one reason to hide your degree and it turns out that it's probably a pretty lousy reason. Let's move on to....

Reasons NOT to hide your advanced degree.

Basic Timeline. Geeze, you earned the darned thing and you spent three or four or ten years getting it, which makes it a huge part of you. When the interviewer says, "Tell us a little bit about yourself" do you suppose that they don't care about that four or five years when you were apparently being held incommunicado by a band of rogue CIA agents somewhere in the woods of Minnesota. Being enrolled in a PhD program will explain a lot. It also allows you to list your teaching assistantships, research work, committee memberships, etc. that you couldn’t list if you left off the degree.

Basic Integrity. Most jobs are going to ask directly about your educational background and hiding it because you think it will give you some sort of advantage reeks of a lack of integrity. So, assume that you get a job by hiding your PhD, remember that you will be hiding it as long as you are there. Imagine that you are somehow successful and one day you overhear the boss say to a colleague. “I just decided that we need to be looking for a PhD for the new position.”

Suddenly, you awkward choices are to say: “Wow! You know, when I interviewed here last year, it completely slipped my mind that I have a PhD.” or the equally awkward, “Yeah. So, when I interviewed last year, I just assumed that you would be biased against me because of my degree.” Okay, okay. There are many other “tactful” ways of saying this, but at some level, all of them indicate that you are willing to be deceitful to further your own ends.

Basic Screening. Think back to the really lousy reason to hide your resume. If someone is going to have a problem with the effort that you expended on an advanced degree, then it is probably better not to hook up with him or her in the first place. In that sense, your degree serves as sort anti-intellectual BS detector.

Basic Value. Two years ago, a woman who had recently finished her PhD in molecular biology came to see me. She was adamant that she did not wish to have an academic career and felt she would be happy as a staff researcher at a university or hospital. She expressed great frustration that she had not been called by any of the dozens of positions for which she had applied. The more we talked about it, the more I realized that she was presenting herself not as a highly skilled researcher, but as a failed academic.

We did some slight cosmetic work on her resume and talked about how she could approach prospective employers so that they understood that she genuinely wanted to be, as she called it, just a lab rat. She found a position at a well-known research institute and within two years became a project manager, overseeing several grant-funded projects. Her boss clearly understood her value and entrusted her with extra duties, eventually rewarding her for her efforts.

The bottom line here is that despite what people tell you, hiding your advanced degree (whether it is a PhD, MBA, MA, etc.) probably creates more problems than it solves in a highly competitive job market.


  1. I've been thinking about removing the PhD from my name at the top of the resume, but not removing it from my educational history...I think this might make a prospective employer at least look at the resume before tossing it in the "overqualified" pile. Make sense? What do you think?

  2. Absolutely! I think this is a... well, brilliant way to handle things.